The Road to NBA Title Contention: Tanking or Stockpiling Assets?

The 76ers are tanking and the Celtics are stockpiling assets. Both have the goal of title contention. Is one way better than the other?

After last night’s important tank race between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, the topic of organization rebuilding has been a popular one in the basketball community. Two prospects, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, are battling for the number-one spot in the upcoming draft and are currently leading their teams on the biggest of all college basketball stages, the Final Four.

There has also been discussion about whether there is a “correct” way to rebuild a franchise -- do you take the extreme philosophy of the 76ers and be intentionally bad for years and accumulate top picks? Or do you stockpile assets like the Houston Rockets and hope to flip them for a superstar such as James Harden?

The Importance of Superstars

Whatever you believe, it’s clear that the road to title contention is having a superstar. And superstars very rarely come outside of the top five or so picks in the draft. Houston acquired their superstar through an unconventional route, but their road to contention still required getting one of those top picks -- Harden was the third overall pick in the 2009 draft.

A lot of people point to the Atlanta Hawks as a model to build up an organization to title contention -- they were middle of the road for years until their leap this year into the top spot in the East. However, their jump coincided with the health of Al Horford who, as you can probably guess, was also a top pick (he went third overall in the 2007 draft).

Look at all of the contending teams -- we’ll count the West playoff teams plus Atlanta, Cleveland, and Chicago from the East -- and you’ll see top picks as stars on pretty much every team.

  • Warriors: Bogut (1), Livingston (4), and Curry (a silly 7)
  • Grizzlies: Conley (4), Green (5)
  • Rockets: Howard (1), Harden (3)
  • Blazers: Aldridge (2), Lillard (6), Kaman (6)
  • Clippers: Griffin (1), Paul (4)
  • Spurs: Duncan (1)
  • Mavericks: Chandler (2)
  • Thunder: Durant (2), Kanter (3), Westbrook (4), Waiters (4)
  • Hawks: Horford (3)
  • Cavaliers: James (1), Irving (1), Thompson (4), Love (5)
  • Bulls: Rose (1), Gasol (3), Dunleavy (3)

Every single contending team has a top-five pick starting for them, and for most teams, it’s their best player. Now, it’s not a science in selecting draft picks correctly, but that’s where the 76ers’ plan doesn’t seem so bad. If you know you need a top pick, you might as well get as many as you can and hope one turns into a superstar that will vault you into contention.

What This Means for the Current NBA

Of course, not every team is taking the 76ers’ route.

All of this puts, for example, the Celtics in an interesting spot, as Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote today. They currently don’t have that top pick superstar or future superstar, yet they’re also right in the middle of playoff contention and thus aren’t going to get a top-five pick this year. The model seems to be to accumulate assets and hope you can snag a superstar in a trade or free agency, like the Rockets did with Harden.

However, with the advancements of advanced statistics, SportVU data, and more and more brilliant basketball minds, it seems like organizations are becoming better at correctly valuing players. Harden had the pedigree but was slightly undervalued by the league it seems when he was in Oklahoma City. Houston was able to pounce on that fact. I’m not sure there are undervalued players anymore -- it seems like analytics have become too important a part of basketball to let a player slip through cracks.

Of course, there’s always the situation like Kevin Love this past summer who essentially demanded to the Timberwolves to move him. That would be a situation that Boston would need. However, there will be many other teams bidding for such a player as well. The same can be said for tanking though, as several teams are doing just that currently.

The situation in Boston will certainly be one to monitor over the next couple of years, as they’ll be a team swimming upstream against the current. Perhaps there will be a very undervalued player -- or perhaps they’ll hit on a later draft pick in the teens -- that proves me wrong.

And they aren’t the only team in the same situation. Charlotte for one, is in a similar boat, just with fewer assets.

The road to title contention is a hard and bumpy one, and it’s changing before our very feet. We’ll see which yellow brick road is the correct one.